Turning a Corner: Afghanistan in 2007

Three of the men I taught in Faisabad, looking serious for my camera. Khalid is on the right.

“We’ll pay for your flight and accommodations—the usual,” Irshad said. It was Memorial Day and my friend was calling from Kabul to ask if I’d return.

I’d traveled to Afghanistan as a volunteer teacher twice, in 2006 and 2007, to help Afghans who worked for the Aga Khan Development Network, the largest development agency in the country outside of the UN.

As the HR assistant in charge of staff training, Irshad needed to find a teacher by August.

He was also trying to meet another deadline. In a year’s time, AKDN wants local staff to take over management positions, for which they would need to write funding proposals and partner with other international agencies. The foundation employs over 1500 Afghans. Most are what in ESL parlance would be called zero beginners.

I told Irshad I had returned to grad school. But that wasn’t what made me say no.

On my first trip in winter 2006, my students told me that after five years of relative peace, “The air smells fresh.” Afghanistan was turning a corner. That spring and summer, a Taliban insurgence beefed up with al Qaeda fighters bombed or torched over 330 schools, killing and maiming dozens of teachers and children. Impoverished farmers indebted to drug lords produced a bumper crop of poppy, probably more than the world’s current demand for heroin. A drought decimated wheat fields, forcing villagers to sell emaciated cattle—and some of their children.

On my second trip in winter 2007, I traveled to four of AKDF’s northern offices and taught 126 people. Before a threat to security sent me home, I had less than twenty contact hours with any of my students.

And by January 2007, there was no more talk of turning a corner.

“But, Miss.” Esmat, 28, a project assistant shot up his hand. We were sitting in an unheated classroom in Puli-Khumri, a small city 100 miles north of Kabul. On the white board, I had just capitalized a month.

We turned to Esmat, expecting one of his jokes. “What do Afghans care about dates when all we’ve had for twenty-five years is war?” he said.

I turned from the class’s laughter, glanced out the window into the icy afternoon. A band of children in rags were bundling brush for cooking fires. Some of them wore plastic sandals; most were bare-footed.

With the collapse of peace and reconstruction efforts threatened, I wasn’t surprised Esmat had grown testy. At one point or another in the last 25 years, most of the class had fled the country, joining six million people, a fifth of the population—the largest refugee group in the world. Staff was back now to teach farmers how to dry apricots for the international market, to teach women how to grow kitchen gardens, and to teach villagers to elect village councils.

But at the end of their day, they left for homes without electricity or running water. They had no access to health clinics. Their children went to school in tents. In mountain villages, I saw primary school classes sitting on tarps spread on the ground with their teacher lecturing to them. And there was no snow cover in Doshi Valley this year, nor in the south as I saw from my plane’s window, forcing AKDN to again divert funds from reconstruction projects to emergency wheat rations.

And what of the new democracy, the finishing touch on Afghanistan’s extreme makeover? Monawar, a former helicopter pilot in the Afghan Air Force before the mujahidin dismantled it in 1992, wrote in a class assignment: “Why is Karzai worrying about Pakistan when everyone knows half the parliament is warlords? Why is Bush lying about freedom when we know the Taliban controls half the country? All the time they are lying, which is not acceptable to us.”

AKDN had hired more women in the last year, but at the end of their day, they were driven home under guard, in our white vans. The year before in Puli-Khumri, three women were found on a road outside of town, with notes attached to them, warning people not to work for the NGOs. Whoever had written the notes—a militia or some sect—had left the women with their throats slit.

“I can’t go out without a burqa because otherwise people would talk,” said Nadia, a striking, stylish 21-year-old, who liked to wear tight jeans under hers. This year, I learned more about her because she had learned enough English to overcome her shyness. One afternoon, she told me that she and her sister were orphaned—Nadia supported them both because after her sister jumped out of their third-story flat during a U.S. cluster bomb attack, she was confined to a wheelchair.

Nadia then asked me to help her edit a letter—asking for a raise to $200 a month.

After we finished, she turned to pick up her burqa crumpled over the back of her chair, looking slimmer-hipped than what I remembered. I wondered: Was this an attempt to appear chic? Or had she grown to angry to eat?

I saw only a handful of burqa-clad women in the Puli-Khumri bazaar, otherwise an all-male affair. But the burqa, the symbol that we outsiders use to gauge women’s status, is not the largest human rights issue facing Afghan women. With crime on the increase, people keep their wives at home, fearing for their safety. People keep their daughters at home, their schools now targeted by the Taliban.

“We don’t have divorce here,” said Anahita, another student. “I’m stuck with one man. How boring!” But the smile in her eyes told me otherwise.

I don’t know if Anahita’s marriage was arranged. An estimated eighty percent of Afghan marriages are still forced, sometimes to pay a debt or to resolve a dispute. More than half of the marriages involve girls below the legal age of sixteen—girls as young as seven are bought as second, third and fourth wives to men as old as seventy.

Desperate to escape domestic violence, sometimes by drug-addicted husbands, an increasing number of women are resorting to self-immolation—they douse themselves with kerosene and light a match. Clinics have seen hundreds of failed suicides, women with severe muscle damage or body parts fused together. Women’s rights groups have tried to estimate their numbers, but cases often go unreported for fear of stigma, or because when cases of abuse are brought before judges, they only ask, “Why has she done this?”

“Why doesn’t Karzai show his wife in public—unveiled—like Amunallah Khan did in 1919?” Nikfar, an engineer, had just watched my class of zero beginners in Bamyan giggle out of our classroom, leopard-print headscarves their fashion choice. But when my class, women in their early twenties, went to the villages to teach villagers how to vote, they needed to travel (according to Koranic law) with a marham, a male relative to whom they couldn’t be married. Otherwise people would talk but not to them.

Karzai hasn’t presented his wife in a single public ceremony. Some say he’s afraid of alienating Islamists.

It was also Nikfar who, after we had climbed to the top of the hole of the Papa Buddha, pointed out the beginning of a highway planned to connect Bamyan to Herat, the major city near the Iranian border. “You can see that it’s still dirt,” he said. “Karzai is Pashtun, you know, and there aren’t enough Pashtuns along this road.”

Then we ducked out of the snow into a cave, where six children were huddled around a fire. As we left money in their plastic pail, Nikfar said, “The government will kick them out. But they’ll come back.”

I also wondered if, as employees of an international agency, Nikfar and my other students held insights that impoverished, jobless Afghans did not.

In Faisabad, the capital of the northeastern-most Badakhshan Province (my third assignment), the signs to our compound had been taken down. People had been throwing rocks at AKDN vehicles because of a dispute between the provincial governor and a district police chief. Many of my students were Ismailis, the same sect as the governor.

“People don’t trust the government, the UN, or the U.S.,” said Mutahar, a thirty-year-old project manager in Faisabad. “People think the U.S. is friendly with the Taliban. They think U.S. helicopters supply the Taliban with weapons.”

Astounded, I asked him if people knew about the coalition, the international security force.

“No, all they see are the Americans wandering around with their guns,” he said.

It occurred to me that the “people” had drawn logical conclusions.

At times, it seemed a mess. At times, I thought I was there for only appearance’s sake. AKDN couldn’t afford to pay me. Our short trainings were long enough to leave my zero beginners comfortable with saying, “Fine, thanks, and you?”

But it wasn’t my students’ fault. Given a choice, wouldn’t people want to feed and clothe their families, live in peace and work towards a secure future? If governments would let them. On February 15, we watched Bush declare that Afghans were “free to realize their dreams,” while boys die, clinics in the south can’t handle half the wounded civilians, and American contractors line their pockets. In the last six years, we’ve pledged—but not spent—an estimated $11 billion of reconstruction money to Afghanistan. Most of what is spent is directly wired into the American bank accounts of contractors and consultants, leaving so little for projects on the ground that highways fall apart in a year, and clinics are shut down because they don’t meet minimal health standards.

And on March 11, against the protests of Afghans, we watched a powerless Karzai sign a bill passed through the lower and upper house, granting amnesty to members of parliament for killing children.

Has Afghanistan, cited by Bush as a model for Iraq, turned its penultimate corner?

The road to Baharak, my last assignment, snaked along an icy turquoise river, wound through mud-brick villages with children with ancient faces. Young girls with sad, old lady expressions look as if there were nothing ahead of them. A toddler in a thin dress with mirror spangles gazed at our white van pass.

Two years before in May 2005, in Baharak, a northeastern cranny of Afghanistan fifty miles from the Tajik border, people had torched the old AKDN compound after seeing a photo in Newsweek of pages of the Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo Prison.

I supposed I shouldn’t have left the new compound, but I did. There were no women about. Not a one. But this could be partly because their numbers are fewer here, with the highest recorded rate of death from childbirth in the world—one of every fifteen births.

In Baharak, my favorite student was Khalid. Wiry, with eyes that sliced through me. He wrote every practice writing assignment about needing a generator for his Chinese seed-cleaning machine. When the others groaned, “Not that generator again!,” he’d shrug and laugh. Nothing escaped him much.

One day after class, he asked, “Why don’t you stay? You know the background, the people.”

At first, I thought yes, why not?

As we’ve talked, dusk has turned the room pink. Outside the window, one tree-load of sparrows chorused to another. Until they turned silent.

Khalid then told me he had learned English forty years before from two Peace Corps volunteers. He announced as if they had just entered the room, “Mr. and Mrs. Springfield of Poughkeepsie, New York.”

He turned back to me. Those eyes.

“I wonder where they are now,” he said. “I wonder if they are alive.”


Los Angeles Free Press. July 2007.